by Robert Pichette

Dauphin Herald of the Canadian Heraldic Authority
Member of the Académie internationale d'héraldique

Cistercian monasteries have been using distinctive coats of arms since the 12th century when heraldry first appeared in Europe. Originally, simple symbols were painted on the warriors' shields as a means of distinguishing one from the other since they were literally encased in armour from head to foot. From the shields, the symbols were also carried on the surcoats worn by the knights - hence "coat of arms" -, and even on their horses caparisons as well as on their banners. These handy marks of identity were soon adopted by those laymen and ecclesiastics who also needed specific marks of identity. Generally, their heraldic symbols were displayed on seals but for the same purpose as the knights on the battlefields: heraldry was, and remains, a means of identity.

The birth of heraldry corresponds to the Cistercian reform. In fact, the earliest known armorial seal of a monastery is that of the Cistercian abbey of Froidmont, in the diocese of Beauvais, in France, founded in 1134. Cistercian heraldry has always been distinguished by its great simplicity, in keeping with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who roundly condemned the grotesque mythical beasts that ornamented the cloisters of Benedictine monasteries. Heraldry, of course, was fond of these fierce lions and eagles, and other strange creatures, which soon peopled the royal and knightly shields. The Cistercian Order kept to a purity and simplicity of style that is their hallmark.

The tradition of heraldic asceticism was quite naturally brought to the two New Brunswick foundations. It is not known if the first Cistercian foundation in Nova Scotia used a coat of arms, but it is certain that the refounded abbey made use of a distinctive coat of arms. Nor do we know precisely at what point the Rogersville monks started using their monastic coat of arms. However, we do have a wealth of details with respect to the coat of arms and motto used by the Trappistine nuns. Founded in 1904, the nuns started using their own coat of arms sometime between December 1907 and February 1908. It had been designed in the best Cistercian heraldic tradition by a Frenchman from Lyon, Louis Fournier, who had also written a book entitled Soeurs de France et de Pologne (Nuns of France and of Poland). This compilation of various feminine religious Orders also included the various coats of arms used by the different monasteries. Still at the pioneering stage of their foundation, the nuns had not given any thought to a coat of arms. They did not know either if their former community of Vaise, near Lyon, had borne one. Fournier, in sending them his book, remedied the situation by suggesting an appropriate one.

An anonymous nun in the Rogersville monastery described the symbolism of their new Arms in a description that was printed in the newspaper Le Moniteur Acadien, published in Shediac, in June 1916. The cross was an obvious choice for a monastery of nuns who had borne the cross of exile. Furthermore the black cross on a white background recalled the nuns habit; the black scapular over a white robe. The upper part of the shield is blue with a gold star between two gold fleurs de lis. This evoked the ancient arms of the kings of France. The annalist specifically mentioned that both the colour and the fleurs de lis were used because Acadie had been a province of France under the Bourbons kings. The star is the Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, a symbol of the Virgin Mary under whose patronage the new monastery had been placed. The French annalist duly noted that the Acadians had chosen the Virgin of the Assumption as their Patron Saint; that their "national" day was August 15, Assumption Day; that they had placed a gold star in the blue part of their flag, and that their "national" hymn was the Ave Maris Stella.

Coincidentally, on the uncomfortable and crowded ship Malou which had brought the nuns to the New World, they had been asked to join passengers and crew in communal singing. The men had been singing old French folk songs on the deck. In turn, on Sunday, May 23, 1904, the nuns, en route for Rogersville, sang the sailors' hymn, Monter vers Marie (Going towards Mary) and the Ave Maris Stella, "and all these gentlemen sang with us", noted the annalist. The nuns themselves chose the Latin motto: Luceat et florebunt which may be translated as May she shine and may they grow. The nun added: "May white Cistercian lilies grow in great numbers under the light of the Star that has already made fruitful the young stem of our small monastery." [Translation].

Louis Fournier had 500 sheets printed in France with the new coat of arms and sent them to the nuns in Rogersville where they were received with much joy It seems apparent that the French monks adopted a coat of arms for their monastery, founded in 1902, early on, but the precise year is not yet known. It is a beautifully simple heraldic shield consisting of a white Cross pattée on a blue background with the red gothic letter M overall. The Latin motto Ecce Mater Tua is translated by: "This is your mother", Christ's very words to the Apostle John (John 18, 27). The design may be the work of a newly arrived monk or it may have been the creation of a French monk at the mother abbey of Bonnecombe, in France, whence the original contingent of monks came.

The shield, originally surmounted by a "crest" consisting of an enflamed heart surmounted by a fleur de lis and pierced by seven swords, is drawn in ink on the cover of a two volume manuscript history of the Rogersville foundations. This was the work of Father Antoine Piana, the first Superior (died in1938). Regrettably, we do not know when he started the work. This "crest" is a symbol of Our Lady of Sorrows with a fleur de lis as an allusion to the old royal arms of France. It also happened to be found in modified form in the coat of arms of Dom Émile Lorne (1846-1918), the abbot of Bonnecombe.

The symbolism of the cross on the shield is obvious. Not only is it the premier symbol of the Church, it is also a direct allusion to the Calvary, the monastery having been called Our Lady of the Calvary. The Virgin Mary is represented by the red gothic letter M. In a letter to Dom Antoine Piana, dated Rogersville, September 5, 1902, Father Marcel-François Richard, (he was raised to the dignity of Domestic Prelate in 1905), refers to the new foundation as an abbey and he wants it be called Notre-Dame de l'Acadie. However, the abbbot of Bonnecombe, Dom Émile Lorne, had already placed the Rogersville monastery under the patronage of Our Lady of the Calvary. Perhaps to soften the blow, the abbot wrote to the future prelate fifteen days after the arrival of the first monks whom he called "good and faithful religious. They will do good to Our Lady of Acadie, and, because their small foundation is under the patronage of Our Lady of the Calvary, if they must suffer, they will look up to the Virgin of Sorrows at the foot of the cross of the Good Jesus." [Translation].

By including the pierced heart in their coat of arms, it is very likely that the first monks wanted to honour their heavenly Patron as well as their founding abbot. Those Arms, with the curious "crest", are chiselled on the corner stone of the present monastery. It was laid in great pomp on July 26, 1927.

This pious but unheraldic appendage was dispensed with, possibly in 1960, when the Priory was raised to the rank of an abbey. They appeared in their present form in the abbey's newsletter of November-December 1960 and have remained unchanged since. The two Cistercian abbeys in New Brunswick are represented by coatsof arms that are eloquently simple, in the best Cistercian tradition, with their roots in a rich Catholic monastic tradition that is very much alive, in the service of God and of the people of God, after 900 years.

(Reference: Miramichi Leader, Section C, September 29, 1998)

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